I've yet to meet a Thai food-addicted farang who doesn't love miang. These leaf-wrapped bundles of joy are the taste of central Thailand in one neat bite: heat from fresh ginger and shallots, tartness from lime, saltiness from peanuts, and sweetness from toasted coconut and a jam-like sauce made from palm sugar, tamarind, and fish sauce. I'm betting that miang is the most-often ordered Thai appetizer in the world.
Interestingly, though miang is most often found on restaurant menus featuring central Thai standards like green chicken curry and tom yam gong, it isn't a central Thai invention at all. David Thompson writes that it originated in Thailand's north, near the Burmese border, and migrated south, where it took on the central Thai hot-sour-salty-sweet flavor profile.
In Thailand miang isn't an appetizer unless you're in an upscale restaurant. It's simply a street snack, sold morning to evening. Imagine being able to pick up a skewer of these treats anytime the urge strikes.
Outside a morning market in Lampang, a pleasant northern Thai town about an hour south of Chiang Mai, a central Thai-style miang vendor is doing a roaring business. It's only 9:30 but we're dragging from the heat, feeling a little peckish ... a light, highly seasoned mouthful seems just the thing at a moment like this.
Hers is a streamlined operation, all ingredients lined up within less than an arm's reach.
She starts with blanched piper betel leaves and then piles it on: shallot, lime, ginger, and toasted coconut (opening photo).
Next come a few roasted peanut halves,
and a generous spoonful of her homemade sauce.
Now it's time to wrap the parcel,
break for a chuckle,
and slide the finished product onto a skewer.
Around the corner, another miang vendor. Her table holds identical miang makings, except that her piper betel leaves are fresh.
Verdict? We prefer number two, for the crunch and freshness her leaves add to the mix. But vendor number one wins for the most high-pitched cackle.
Another day, another nibble.
Having just rolled into in Nan, capital of the northern Thai province of the same name, we make a beeline to its fantastic evening market. There, we find a vendor rolling northern-style miang Lao - named, we assume, for the country that Nan shares a 140-mile border with.
Like central Thai miang, miang Lao is a region in a mouthful. Northern Thai preparations draw maximal flavor from minimal ingredients. To us, the region's food is the embodiment of unpretentious, down-to-earth deliciousness. It's hot and salty, sometimes sweet, rarely sour, often bitter - rustic and never, ever timid.
Miang Lao is made with pickled cabbage or mustard. The leaves serve as the treat's wrapper, while the stems are chopped and added to a filling that also includes roasted peanuts, namtaan bpeep (sugar from the palmyra palm) or namtaan ooi (brown cane sugar), deep-fried pork skin, and cilantro.
The bundle is popped into the mouth with a whole fresh chile. An odd combination, perhaps - sweet palm sugar and salty, bitter cabbage leaves - but, like many dishes served in the north, surprisingly addictive.
Miang Lao should be made to taste, so no exact amounts are given. If the thought of a whole chile is more than you can bear, chop the chilies and add in small amounts to the filling. These treats are best made shortly before serving so the pork skin doesn't get soggy. They go very well with an ice-cold beer.
Thai palm sugar or dark brown cane sugar
deep-fried pork skins, slightly crumbled
whole fiery chilies, preferably Thai prik kee nuu
1. Rinse and dry the cabbage leaves, taking care not to tear them. Remove the stems, chop and set aside. Arrange other ingredients in separate bowls.
2. Spread a cabbage leaf on a plate with the stem end facing you. Add a pinch or dab of sugar, a couple of peanuts, some pork skin, a bit of chopped cabbage stem, and a cilantro sprig. Don't overload the leaf - the result should be bite-size. Roll the leaf, fairly tightly, from bottom to top, tucking the sides in as you go.
3. Enjoy with a whole chile.